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Stethoscopes, Compilers, and Hemingway: The Aging Myth

There is this belief that death is part of life. This is what we say in funerals and obituaries, over tear-streaked faces in rooms with mahogany wallpaper. And we have said it for a long time now. Our ancestors have made up all kinds of stories where the bad guy is hard to kill and somehow is blessed with eternal life. Some cultures have focused on the positive—by honoring the elder and somehow conflating the presence of wrinkles with wisdom.

In the modern era, such a narrative continues with paperback and silver screen science fiction dystopias that tell of the horrors of a society that learned to live forever. Recent meetings of the president’s commission on bioethics reveal a measured stance against the notion of “age retardation” (the federal term for such a phenomenon) for the society and the individual.

If this story is so engrained in us, then where did the notion of the Fountain of Youth come from? Why is it so persistent in a place that seems to have so well accepted the inevitability of death?

Here’s my theory: we haven’t really surrendered to death. We can’t believe that this life is going to come to an end. It seemed that all of us once assumed eternal life in childhood, then longed for it, then used religion or ignorance or something to substitute for it. But that initial wellspring of hope remains in us somehow.

Such a quest for the Fountain of Youth has actually materialized in recent years all over the world: in the Bay Area, in NYC, in the UK. There is a whole network of controversial professors, scientists and researchers that believe that living forever is a viable possibility. They come from the SENS foundation, Halcyon Molecular, from labs in the Albert Einstein School of Medicine and the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, from nondescript buildings mere miles from this campus.

There is so much controversy, so many philosophical implications emerging from this idea, so many minds involved—and yet they are just barely piquing the interest of the media. Why? Perhaps they haven’t done enough—haven’t had enough impact on American society. Yet the days of the development of the nuclear bomb were just as heady. Despite that era’s necessary culture of secrecy, everyone was immensely interested long before a single test bomb was deployed.

But boy, they are lucky that the rest of the world doesn’t care—for whatever reason. In this way, minds can keep on working, getting closer to a solution before the governments of the world get suspicious and nervous about its profound implications.

I admire these people for daring to dream beyond the horizon of mainstream biology and engineering. I don’t know if this vast network will succeed. It may possibly fail. But Stanford needs to put itself onto this map in either case. This university has a varied history in risk and innovation. It has nothing to lose and everything to gain with such an investment in human immortality.

Why, you ask, is this so? Can’t Stanford lose a lot of respect for funding such an intrinsically selfish thing for humanity? In the midst of poverty and human health and disease, funding a cause like this seems frivolous, right? No. Funding efforts at human immortality are fundamentally a good thing because it gives us the option to rewrite our biological destiny. Not having such a therapy at hand chains us to our biological degradation. The latter is clearly a better society than the former because it consists of freer people: those in charge of their own mortality. We have every obligation to give our future society that powerful and profound a liberty.

Why, you ask, is a freer society a better one? The answer lies in our history: gains in liberty have a positive precedent in the human story. Agriculture freed us from the chains of a hunter-gatherer society; the written and spoken word freed us from imprecise communication; the advent of flight freed us from our location. Human empiricism has resulted in tools like these—tools that have allowed us to rescript all kinds of once-fated ends.

Let us hope upon this irony: that a university founded on death may eventually destroy mortality.

Aging is God’s ultimate conspiracy theory. If you don’t think so, let me know at [email protected].

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